ROME — In what must surely be a relief to Pope Francis, a Vatican tribunal ruled on Thursday that the press is free, that secretaries aren’t to blame, that new mothers shouldn’t go to jail, and that one of their own is the only one who truly deserves to pay the price for the Vatican crime of leaking documents to the press.
The so-called Vatileaks II trial began eight months ago over allegations that Spanish Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda and a Calabrian public relations consultant named Francesca Chaouqui, aided by Balda’s assistant Nicola Maio, knowingly leaked secret documents to journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipladi.
Balda and Chaouqui were both on a special commission designed to reform the Vatican’s finances, during which they allegedly stole the documents with the help of Maio and fed them to the journalists who published them in books last year.
The audacity of putting two journalists on trial for practicing journalism garnered harsh criticism from around the world, including a New York Times editorial that outlined why the Vatican was on the wrong side of press freedom and a call by the Committee to Protect Journalists to drop the charges.
During the bizarre trial, Monsignor Balda insisted Chaouqui seduced him at a Florentine hotel and threatened him with her ties to the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate unless he gave the documents to the journalists.
The voluptuous Chaouqui denied mob ties—and the seduction. “The last thing Balda would do is go to bed with me,” she said. “I know emirs and millionaires. If I wanted to betray my husband, I wouldn’t do it with an old priest who doesn’t even like women.”
Balda, who actually admitted giving Nuzzi documents and passwords under pressure from Chaouqui, was kept in a Vatican jail cell during most the trial after violating the rules of house arrest by sneaking a cellphone into his room.
He was sentenced to 18 months in prison Thursday, for which he may be pardoned if Pope Francis follows the general practice of pardons and forgiveness.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted of similar crimes for leaking documents to the same journalist as in this case, Gianluigi Nuzzi. He was also sentenced to 18 months, of which he served very little after Benedict forgave him.
Chaouqui, who had a baby boy she named Pietro three weeks ago, and who brought the infant to several hearings in the Vatican tribunal to breastfeed, insisted that Balda is gay and that said she despised the mob in her native Calabria.
She also played the martyr during the last days of the trial, insisting she would serve her time “baby in my arms” if she was convicted, and threatening that, “If you convict me, I’ll tell the journalists everything!”
She was given a 10 month suspended sentence for her role in the affair, which convicts her of wrongdoing but doesn’t punish her for it. She vowed to appeal to clear her name, though there is little precedent in terms of Vatican trials, so it is truly anyone’s guess if that’s even a possibility.
During closing arguments, her Vatican-appointed lawyer admitted her client wasn’t the nicest person in the world, but said that shouldn’t be a reason to convict her.
“Francesca Chaouqui isn’t likeable. She's never quiet. She talks when she shouldn’t,” her lawyer, Laura Sgro, told the court. “But you can’t convict her just because she’s unlikeable, unpleasant, insufferable, arrogant and presumptuous.”
The sentencing was seen as the best-case scenario for all involved—especially the Holy See—except, perhaps, for Balda.
During closing arguments, the Vatican prosecutor, known as “the promoter of justice,” asked that the court dismiss the case against the journalist Fittipaldi altogether out of lack of evidence and only asked for one year for the author, Nuzzi.
In the end, the Vatican tribunal ruled that it didn’t have jurisdiction to try either of them in the first place, which is exactly what both had argued throughout the trial.